Motion to Agree
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I would first like to apologise for the fact that the debate has been brought forward by a day. The date was rearranged at the request of the usual channels, in order to avoid disrupting business tomorrow, when I know the House will be keen to make progress on the legal aid Bill. However, the Procedure Committee report has been available for almost two months now, and the Liaison Committee report was published last Wednesday, so I hope that noble Lords will have had ample opportunity to consider them.
I have waited until now to move the Motion on the Procedure Committee report because I felt that it would be useful for the House to be able to debate it alongside any report from the Liaison Committee. The proposals in both reports require extra resources and I am sure that noble Lords will wish to consider their implications in the round. In order to assist the House in considering these proposals, the House Committee agreed to publish its Third Report, which sets out the potential costs of the proposals contained within the Procedure Committee and Liaison Committee reports. The House is not being invited to come to a decision on the House Committee report; it is purely for information. However, I hope that noble Lords will find its contents useful during the course of today’s debates.
I should make it clear at the outset that, although the Procedure Committee and Liaison Committee reports are linked by the common issue of costs, we will debate them separately, as they cover very different areas of the work of the House. After I have introduced the Procedure Committee report, I expect the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, to move her amendment. I would then expect that the majority of the debate on the Procedure Committee report would take place on that amendment. After the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness has been disposed of, the House can then take each of the other amendments in turn—without, I hope, further debate. Only once a final decision on the Procedure Committee report has been taken will we turn to the Liaison Committee report.
I now turn to the Procedure Committee report itself, to which four amendments were tabled. The report covers two issues: Grand Committees and Questions for Written Answer. I shall first address Grand Committees, and the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The committee’s recommendations on Grand Committees derive from recommendations made by the Leader’s Group on Working Practices, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad. The Leader’s Group recommended, first, that,
“the sitting hours of the Grand Committee should in future be more predictable and longer”,
“that a rule be established, and included in the Companion, that all Government Bills introduced in the Commons should be considered in Grand Committee, apart from major constitutional Bills and emergency legislation and other exceptionally controversial Bills”.
Finally, the group recommended that some new types of business, including Oral Statements, could be taken in Grand Committee.
The Procedure Committee considered these recommendations along with proposals by the Leader of the House, which varied from them in certain important respects. First, on longer sitting hours, the Leader’s Group recommended, in broad terms, that Grand Committees sit every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 10.30 am until 12.30 pm, and from 2.30 pm until 6.30 pm. The Leader of the House, as our report states in paragraph 3, proposed instead that Grand Committees on Monday to Wednesday should continue to start at their present times, but that Grand Committees on primary legislation on these days should sit until 10 pm, with a one-hour break for dinner. Sitting times on Thursdays would also be varied, with Grand Committees on primary legislation sitting from noon until 7 pm, with a one-hour break.
It is not for me to comment on the merits of longer Grand Committee hours. Longer hours will involve additional costs, and the House Committee has examined them and set out its commitment to deliver savings to offset any additional expenditure, so that the overall effect is cost-neutral. It is for the House as a whole, in light of the House Committee’s report, to decide whether the benefits of increased Grand Committee scrutiny of primary legislation justify any additional expenditure. Nor is it for me to comment on the relative merits of morning as against evening sittings. The Leader took the view that morning sittings would be unlikely to find favour with the House as a whole, and the committee, on balance, agreed. The committee also agreed with the Leader’s proposal that, on days when more than one Oral Statement is to be made or repeated, the option should be available to take one of the Statements in Grand Committee, during the dinner break.
I now turn to the committee’s recommendation on the committal of Bills to the Grand Committee. As I have already said, the Leader’s Group recommended that there be a rule, enshrined in the Companion, that government Bills sent from the Commons be committed to Grand Committee, subject to certain exceptions. The Leader argued that the proposed exceptions, constitutional or emergency Bills, or other “exceptionally controversial Bills”, were both too rigid and impossible to define. He proposed instead that there should be general presumption that government Bills introduced in the Commons should be committed to Grand Committee, except where the usual channels agree otherwise. My understanding is that this approach would allow the usual channels to consider a range of factors, such as the level of interest across the House in a particular Bill, in deciding whether it would be in the interests of Members that that Bill should be considered in Grand Committee or in a Committee of the Whole House. However, as now, the final decision would rest with the House as a formal committal Motion would need to be agreed in the usual way.
Finally, I wish to draw noble Lords’ attention to the final bullet point in paragraph 10, which states that the new arrangements, if agreed by the House, would be adopted on a trial basis, for the 2012-13 Session only. It would require a further decision of the House, following a review by the Procedure Committee, to extend them beyond spring 2013.
As the report makes clear, the committee was not unanimous in agreeing its recommendations on Grand Committees. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, both made clear their preference for the approach recommended by the Leader’s Group, and this is reflected in the noble Baroness’s amendment. This amendment will be called next, and I shall leave it to the noble Baroness and others to debate the merits of the two alternative approaches on offer. My position on this amendment is entirely neutral.
The second amendment, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is more far-reaching in that it would return the entire issue of Grand Committees to the Procedure Committee. No doubt the noble Lord, when he speaks, will clarify what he hopes to achieve by means of his amendment and what he thinks the Procedure Committee should consider further. Again, my position on the amendment is entirely neutral.
I now turn to the second part of the report, which concerns Questions for Written Answer. The committee proposes a new weekly limit of 12 on the number of Written Questions that Members are entitled to table. The committee unanimously supported this recommendation. The background is covered briefly in the report. The number of Questions for Written Answer has risen inexorably in the past 10 years, from an average of 29 on each sitting day in 2003-04 to 60 per day in the current Session.
None of us doubts that the tabling of Questions for Written Answer is a vital part of parliamentary scrutiny of government. However, these Questions come at a cost. The report quotes the average cost to the Government of £159 per Written Question. We did not put a figure on the cost to this House—for instance, in staff time and printing—but a recent report by the House of Commons Procedure Committee suggested that the cost to the House of Commons was around £80 per Written Question, giving a total cost to the public purse of just under £240 per Written Question. Putting these figures into the context of the House of Lords, Written Questions cost the public around £14,300 in respect of each sitting day, rather than the £9,500 quoted in the report.
The committee also bore in mind the huge discrepancy between Members of the House in the rate at which they table Written Questions. The Clerk of the Parliaments provided analysis of all Written Questions tabled from October to December 2011, which showed that just 10 Members of your Lordships’ House tabled 45 per cent of all Questions for Written Answer. Just three noble Lords tabled 27 per cent of all Questions in that period.
Taking these factors into account, the committee agreed unanimously that a weekly limit of 12 Questions per Member was proportionate and reasonable, and would enable noble Lords to continue their essential work of scrutinising the Government, while reducing the scope for what some might regard as abuse of the Order Paper. I therefore oppose the amendment in the name of noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, intends to move. The committee has considered the matter in considerable detail on the basis of a very thorough analysis of the evidence supplied. We have made a recommendation. The House may agree to it or not, but I see no point in referring the matter back at this stage.
Finally, the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would create a new rule that, in weeks when the House was not sitting, Members would be entitled to table up to six Questions for Written Answer. Of course I understand what the noble Lord is seeking to achieve. However, I hope that the House will agree that this would be a significant change, which would have cost implications both for the House and for government departments. It could also have a major impact on the staff of the House, particularly the Table Office. I certainly do not reject the noble Lord’s amendment out of hand, but I suggest that we need to give more detailed consideration to the practicalities of his proposal. If he is willing not to move his amendment when his turn comes, I will undertake to put the proposal before the Procedure Committee when it next meets, which is likely to be early in the new Session.
I trust that I have said enough on the report and the amendments. As I have already indicated, my position on the issue of Grand Committees is neutral, given that, as the report states, the committee was not unanimous in reaching its recommendations. On Questions for Written Answer, the committee was unanimous, and I commend the recommendation set out in paragraph 15 of the report to the House. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the above Motion, at the end to insert “, but with the fourth bullet point in paragraph 10 left out and replaced with the following words:
“That all government Bills introduced in the House of Commons should be considered in Grand Committee, apart from major constitutional Bills and emergency legislation and other exceptionally controversial Bills”.”
My Lords, I am grateful to the Chairman of Committees for moving the Motion on the reports. All the proposals contained in the reports have their roots in the recommendations of the report of the Leader’s Group on Working Practices chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad. We on these Benches support moves to improve and modernise the working practices of your Lordships’ House. While not everyone would necessarily agree with every recommendation from the Leader’s Group, we recognise that the group made a constructive and coherent attempt to bring forward improvements, building on the work originally put in place by the former Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Similarly constructive attempts were made in the past on these Benches, in groups chaired by my noble friends Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Grocott. However, their recommendations related to a different, more iterative process in relation to Grand Committees.
All these constructive attempts shared another characteristic: they were all packages intended to bring forward balanced proposals for reform that would be of benefit to the House as a whole, not necessarily to the Executive or the Opposition. We on these Benches argue that this should have been—and still should be—the approach taken to the Goodlad proposals. However, the impression given is that of a piecemeal, cherry-picking approach that brings forward proposals that seek to advantage the Executive at the expense of our self-regulating House. That is what is in front of your Lordships today.
I know that there is some anxiety on all sides of the House about the order in which the recommendations were considered by the respective committees, and about the proposals brought before the House. There is some suspicion, for example, about the timing of the proposals to put more Bills into Grand Committee, especially at a time when our forthcoming Recess has been extended because of lack of business. On all Benches there is a constant demand—not new under this Government, I have to confess—for less, rather than more, legislation; and press briefings inform us that the next Session is likely to be relatively light apart from the vexed issue of Lords reform. Proposals stemming from the Goodlad group should be brought forward in a way that is strategic, systematic, coherent and consistent.
In moving my amendment, I shall deal with two issues before us today: Grand Committees and Questions for Written Answer. We on these Benches agree with the principle of considering more Bills in Grand Committee. Scrutiny in Grand Committee, especially of technical Bills, is enhanced in many ways. Certainly at present the Grand Committee has more capacity for the scrutiny of Bills and should be properly utilised. The proposals originally brought forward by the Leader of the House appear to take more power for the Executive but, although they are framed in terms of increasing the timing of sittings of Grand Committee, from discussions with the usual channels I heard and understood that the principal objective of the Leader of the House was not greater time but greater flexibility in the use of Grand Committee, and of course I welcome that. Indeed, I understand that the Leader has written to Cross-Bench Peers along those lines. Even so, I am aware that many on the Benches behind me have strong reservations about the proposals. We sought to work through the usual channels constructively to try to find clarifications of the proposals for the benefit of the whole House. I had hoped that such clarifications could be agreed, but I am sorry to report that agreement proved not to be possible.
We tried very constructively but agreement was eventually not forthcoming. Accordingly, I tabled the amendment standing in my name that seeks to reinsert the formula originally proposed by the Leader’s Group—a proposal that had support from all parties, and from Members of no party, across your Lordships’ House. My amendment to the report from the Procedure Committee will not have been a surprise to members of that committee, as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees said. On each and every occasion when the proposals were discussed, I put forward strong arguments in favour of retaining the criteria contained in the Goodlad proposals—namely, that emergency Bills, constitutional Bills and other exceptionally controversial Bills should not be dealt with in Grand Committee. This is in complete accord with the recommendations of the 1994 Rippon report, upon which I understand the recommendations were drafted.
The noble Lord the Leader may well say later that the wording of the proposal before us—
“That there should be a presumption that Government bills introduced in the House of Commons should be committed to a Grand Committee, except where the Usual Channels agree otherwise”—
is less prescriptive and allows greater flexibility. I disagree. Rather, such a presumption seeks to increase the power and influence of the Executive, altering the balance between the Executive and your Lordships’ House in favour of the Executive, Ministers and the Government. I urge noble Lords to support my amendment in order to ensure that the proper balance between the Executive and a self-regulating House of Lords is retained. That is the effect of my amendment and the balance that I believe this House needs and wants to strike.
On the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that the report should be referred back to the committee, a range of issues should be considered, including the timings of Grand Committees and the implication for resources. We have some sympathy with the desire of the Leader of the House for there to be more flexibility in the hours of work of the Grand Committee. That is why we tried as hard as we did to agree clarification, which would have aided the whole House.
I am glad that the proposals before us no longer reflect the Goodlad recommendation that Grand Committees should meet in the morning, because I agree with the noble Lord the Leader that such timings would inconvenience the whole House. Rather than the Grand Committee being able to sit until 10 pm, my strong preference, as I argued in meetings of the Procedure Committee and the House Committee, would be to end it by 8.30 pm with no supper break. Apart from being more convenient for Members of the House, it would enable the Administration to plan its resources and thus keep down costs. Of course, if more Bills were to be considered in Grand Committee where votes are not taken, more time than usual would be needed for Report, to enable votes on a greater number of issues. We found that in relation to the Welfare Reform Bill.
I know that we have discussed these issues on the Floor of the House in the past, but I am sure that today’s deliberations would greatly assist any future discussions in the Procedure Committee. From the amendments before us today and discussions with Members across the House, I sense that your Lordships’ House is uneasy with the proposals in front of it. Clearly we should listen to the debate this afternoon and, if that is the case, the House may wish to support the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to refer the matter back.
The second issue before us is on Questions for Written Answer and I am pleased to support the recommendation from the House Committee. Accordingly I do not support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. On the proposal from my noble friend Lord Berkeley, I take on board what the Chairman of Committees said and I look forward to my noble friend moving his amendment, but I hope he will agree to the Procedure Committee taking it back for further detailed consideration.
In conclusion, I am sure that the Chairman of Committees will be able to see and interpret the mood of your Lordships’ House today and act accordingly. In the mean time I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I agree with much of what she said, but not all of it. I would not dissent from her on the issue of hours. I have no quarrel with my noble friend the Leader of the House on that, but the noble Baroness’s suggestion of an 8.30 pm finish has much to commend it without in any way reducing the hours that my noble friend would have. That is not the real issue that I want to address.
I am very proud to be a Member of this House. When I came from another place I looked upon this House as one where legislation was properly scrutinised, time was taken and “we do things differently here”. In the context of legislation we do things better here. This is something that we do not wish to lose. We are a self-regulating House. I never want us to be in danger of becoming a government-regulated House. That is why I put down this amendment. I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in stating that, as a rule, all Bills should go to Grand Committee except for her three exceptions.
I do not agree with the noble Baroness for two reasons. One is that it is always difficult to define an exception. What is a highly controversial Bill to some Members of the House may be a matter of simple common sense to others. What is a constitutional Bill to some Members of the House may not be to others. I instance the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. That was, as far as I am concerned, a major constitutional Bill. There were those who argued during our deliberations that it was not. Who is to determine? At the moment it is entirely up to your Lordships’ House to decide whether a Bill goes to Grand Committee or not.
As this Session grinds to a halt we have had a good example in the Welfare Reform Bill. It was suggested that it would be better dealt with in Grand Committee and it went there. It had the consequence, to which the noble Baroness has referred, that Report took much longer because there was no opportunity for voting in Grand Committee. When we are contemplating a move of this nature, we have to bear it in mind that votes do not take place in Grand Committee. My noble friend interjects, “Yet”, and that is one of the points behind my amendment, and one of the reasons why I would like to see this matter looked at again by the Procedure Committee.
In another place a few years ago, the Executive decided that they wanted to take a greater grip of Parliament and to have every Bill programmed. Of course, having sat for almost equal lengths of time on the government and opposition sides of the House, I know that perspective changes according to where you sit. It was wonderful to behold some of the Rottweiler Ministers of 1979 to 1997 suddenly becoming gamekeepers turned poacher when they were in opposition. I make no complaint about that, but I look with fond nostalgia on the memory of the great, late Eric Forth, than whom there was no more draconian Minister and than whom there was no more belligerent opposition Member.
We look at things from different points of view, but Parliament should never be the creature of the Executive. It is difficult enough for Parliament to hold the Executive to account when the Executive are drawn from Parliament. I am not suggesting that we should alter our system. I do not want us to go to an American-style separation of powers, but I recognise that if we are going to get the balance right, the Executive must not trammel, crib, cabin and confine the legislature.
This is exactly what happened in another place shortly after the coming to power of the Blair Administration, when we moved inexorably—partly because Eric Forth and his friends were using the weapon of time somewhat indiscriminately—to the situation where every Bill became timetabled. How often in my brief period here have I heard Members lament the fact that in spite of a change of Government, the timetabling procedures remain? More and more responsibility falls upon your Lordships’ House because of that.
It would be very unfortunate if we allowed ourselves to lose the flexibility that true self-regulation provides. During those 18 years in opposition in the other place, I often came out of the Division Lobby feeling depressed—we could not win, the Government’s majority was so enormous—but my colleagues and I would suddenly see a glimmer of hope and the cry would go up, “Our hope is in the Lords”. Indeed it was, and not infrequently it was realised. The Labour Governments of Mr Blair and Mr Brown suffered a number of significant defeats in this place and sometimes as a consequence they thought again.
As we have seen recently in the long saga of the Health and Social Care Bill, legislation that is—I want to be kind—not exactly perfect can be significantly improved by expertise, time and the fact that Members here have no constituency responsibilities, and no need to answer to an electorate every five years. Things can be improved in here, and we are going to have plenty of opportunity, I suspect, in the forthcoming Session of Parliament to debate that very point. Anything that detracts from self-regulation is to the detriment of this House in particular and Parliament in general.
I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House that he should please beware of that word “presumption”. Just think how much trouble has been caused in recent months by the insertion of that word “presumption” in the context of planning. I do not like documents which presume and I do not like measures which presume. I have nothing against Bills going to Grand Committee but they must go on their individual merits because the House approves of the suggestion that that is where they should go. I urge my noble friend the Leader of the House, when he speaks, to recognise that fact.
That is why I am suggesting that the committee should have the chance to look again and to answer whether we are inadvertently handing over an important aspect of self-regulation. Consider, in the light of the debates that will take place on a possible Lords reform Bill, whether we need this sort of change. We certainly do not need it now because we know from all the leaks that we are going to have a legislation-light Queen’s Speech. If that is the case, why do we need to have this presumption now?
There is another issue—the elephant in the room that is the Bill that dare not speak its name. We all know that it is likely that the Deputy Prime Minister will have his way with us and will produce in the Queen’s Speech some measure of reform affecting your Lordships’ House. I blame not the Leader of the House nor anyone else but in the somewhat febrile atmosphere that has existed in this place for some months there is a teeny suspicion that one of the reasons we are doing this today is to clear the decks for House of Lords reform. That may not be the case. I know not.
In conclusion, I say to my noble friend, than whom there is no more consummate politician in the whole of Parliament, please do not bother with this because you can have your way on individual Bills. They can go to Grand Committee with the House’s approval and blessing and there they can be scrutinised. But do not have this presumption.
Another thing we should bear in mind is not to follow the other place down another steep, slippery slope where so many things are being considered simultaneously in Westminster Hall, in the Chamber and in Committee that it is difficult for an honourable Member adequately to discharge his or her duties. I rest my case.
My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord has just said. If there is to be a presumption then the presumption should be that legislation should be taken here. There is only one alternative that is worse than the committee’s suggestion and that is the recommendation of the noble Baroness, which institutes a rule.
Many will agree that one of the prevailing sins of the British Parliament is that we legislate a great deal too much. A great deal of excessive complication has begotten in our society a high level of bureaucracy in all parts of society—in the private sector as well as the public. This is a serious and malignant failing of our present political culture. What would be the effect if, having cleared much of the business from this Chamber into Grand Committee, there were weeks when there was nothing to be done here? Would that not be an encouragement for the other place to send even more torrents of ill considered law to this place? I am sorry if it is offensive to some who served in the other place but the whipping system that has developed there is now so ruthless, and the guillotine system operated with such consistency and a strong hand, that they deprive the other place of giving the thought to crucial legislation that it not only should but would be well equipped to do if the Members were let off the leash.
The proposal would surely create a vacuum for yet more legislation. The average output of Parliament has been 13,000 pages of legislation a year over the past few years. This year it might exceed even that. It is more than is produced by any comparable democracy in the western world by a long way. Therefore, on that ground if no other, I urge us to reject the committee’s proposal for this presumption and to reject absolutely the recommendation of the noble Baroness, which is in line with the Leader’s Group, that we have a rule that only three types of legislation can be retained in this place without agreement.
My Lords, I have spent nearly 43 years in Parliament, 17 of them in the other place. When I am urged by Ministers to give more time for amendments to be debated, I confess to being just a little cynical and a little doubtful that that is what is really intended. In those 43 years, I have learnt that the principal weapon that Members of both Houses have in controlling an Executive who are all too eager to bring forward legislation is time. Time and again, we find that the amendments that get accepted come at the end of a Session, when the Government of the day run out of time and are forced to accept them. Therefore, when I see a proposal being supported by my noble friend the Leader of the House on the grounds that Members of this House need more time and greater ability to put forward more amendments and debate them endlessly, I confess that I hesitate to accept that that can be the entire motivation.
I will make three brief points about the timing of this proposition and its introduction. First, as has already been referred to, it is a little ironic suddenly to be told that we can have a week off after we have spent 25 days in this House debating one of the most controversial Bills that any of us can remember. However, I will not dwell on that for too long.
Secondly, there has been a change of timetable, bringing the debate on this Motion forward from tomorrow to today. Reference has already been made to this, and I understand that the proposal came not from my noble friend the Leader but through the usual channels. I was in the House until quite late on Thursday afternoon. By the time that statement was made, and certainly by the time it was understood, a large number of Members had left. It was only on Thursday afternoon that discussions among the handful who were still around made us realise that we would be debating this important Motion. I know that there was a download at the bottom of the message that the Whips sent out. However, I suspect that on a sunny weekend not every Member downloads those messages, or takes in what the whole argument is about. The timing was unfortunate from that point of view.
Thirdly and crucially, we all know that this proposal is coming forward for a trial period to coincide with the introduction of the most controversial and important constitutional measure of our time. I would call it the “Abolition of the House of Lords Bill”. However, whatever you call it, I cannot think of a worse time to introduce a trial of this kind without stirring up the suspicion that those who control the business of the House have that in mind. I am not making that accusation, although I do think that it was a little unwise, or a little unusual, of my noble friend the Leader of the House—for whom I have the greatest possible respect—to send a letter to Members of this House, signed jointly with the leader of the Liberal Democrats, urging them to go along with this proposal.
I asked my noble friend at a meeting that I had with him just after two o’clock this afternoon, which I shall come to, whether an identical—
I am interested in that point, because I expressly asked the Leader of the House in his room, at about 2.05 pm, whether all Members had received the same letter. He told me that actually a rather different letter had been sent to, I think, the Cross Benches. I am merely quoting my noble friend, no more.
I offered the noble Baroness a letter. I rewrote it several times last week. Sadly, she refused to accept it.
My Lords, perhaps I may clarify the situation. Forgive me, but we had agreed that we would have an exchange of letters which we would find mutually acceptable, which could then be put in the Library of the House. That is quite a different letter from the one that other noble Lords received.
That is rather an interesting exchange. It has magnified what I had intended to say. However, it was also a little unusual. This is a House matter, and normally we leave the introduction of such measures for individual Members of this House. It is a little unusual—I am not saying it is unique—to have a letter of that kind. It is also slightly unusual to receive an urgent message to get in touch with the Leader’s Office. I was on the train up from Wales, and I was asked to go and meet him. As usual we had the most civilised and delicate discussion about these matters, in which we agreed to differ. I explained that I would be opposing this Motion because I think that the timing is catastrophically unfortunate. I do not think that it should be introduced as an experiment when we are going to have this major Bill before us, with the suspicion that will inevitably arise—and has arisen—that the decks are being cleared.
I also support almost everything else that my noble friend Lord Cormack said. He referred to the possibility of the kind of disciplines being introduced into this House that have been introduced in the Commons. Indeed, the letter from my noble friend the Leader says that this measure is being introduced in order to avoid,
“having to introduce Commons-style restrictions on members’ ability to table amendments”.
Is it a threat? I hope not.
I am totally opposed to doing this at this time. I am glad that the proposals that we should sit in the morning, which I spoke against long ago, have been withdrawn. I do not think that this set of proposals is any more acceptable. The wisest thing now would be for my noble friend the Leader, and those responsible, to listen to what has been said and to take the proposals away and reconsider them. If he will not agree to do that and my noble friend Lord Cormack presses his amendment to the Motion, I will vote for it, and I hope that it will be widely supported in the House.
My Lords, I rise to inform the House that I have not received a letter, either from the Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition, or from my own Convenor. I wish to speak to the report of the Procedure Committee, and I do so with considerable concern as to the changes it proposes to our proceedings.
The proposition is that most Bills coming from the Commons should be referred to a Grand Committee, rather than be taken on the Floor of this Chamber. We have heard that the exceptions to this proposition will allow Bills on major constitutional issues or those dealing with emergency legislation to be taken on the Floor of the House. I would not expect any Government to have the audacity to deny this Chamber the ability to debate and decide on such legislation. However, the report also tells us that there should be a “presumption”—that is the committee’s chosen word; it is not my word—that all other legislation, including controversial, but not “exceptionally” controversial, Bills be also committed to a Grand Committee. As far as I am concerned, most Bills are controversial in varying degrees, and it depends on our personal knowledge of, and hopes and fears for, the legislation proposed therein. I ask the Chairman of Committees or the Leader of the House—whoever is to reply to this debate—what type of Bill will be regarded as controversial, and what will be regarded as exceptionally controversial?
The Health and Social Care Bill was hard-fought legislation—most of my colleagues would agree with that—but under the terms before us today would that Bill have been regarded as controversial and committed directly to Grand Committee, where an interested and involved public would have had great difficulty in witnessing the debates? Or would that Bill have been regarded as exceptionally controversial, and dealt with in this Chamber? Who defines and clarifies that legislation is exceptionally controversial, as opposed to that which is controversial but not exceptionally so? I need to know. Perhaps the Leader of the House will tell us when he winds up. I imagine that I shall be told that the matter may be for the usual channels to define and clarify, or that it may be a matter for the Leader of the House, but I believe that there is some value in posing this question and getting an answer that will be recorded in Hansard so that it can be referred to.
There are times when this Chamber is so crowded that Members have no place to sit and we are standing around it, or shoulder to shoulder behind the Bar of the House. This applies particularly when amendments are being moved and when we wish to hear Ministers wind up on them. To start with, the current situation here is most unsatisfactory. I should therefore like to know what arrangements have been made in the Moses Room for accommodating Members who wish to contribute or listen to debate. That is not an area that lends itself to even a small proportion of the membership of this House, and certainly not to the numbers that would wish to attend during a controversial debate. I would like to hear how we will be accommodated there and, equally importantly—this is very important to me—how members of the public who wish to witness our proceedings will be accommodated.
Last Thursday in this House, the government Chief Whip told us,
“that it is the Government’s intention only to make proposals with regard to Grand Committee that will enable the House to have more opportunity to scrutinise legislation without having the late finishes or early starts”.—[Official Report, 22/3/12; col. 1027.]
That is a fine ambition indeed. However, there are those of us who see the presumption to put government Bills into Grand Committee as an act of stealth to clear the way for a constitutional Bill bringing about the demise of this House. There are those on the red-carpeted corridors out there who think that that is so; but I could not possibly comment. No doubt the Leader of the House will do so, and I look forward to what he has to say on that point.
I very much appreciate the work that goes on in the committees of this House, particularly the Procedure Committee. I note in its report that some of its Members dissented from the recommendations. I certainly cannot support the report and will therefore, when the time comes, support reference back.
My Lords, I would like to give some small advice, if I may, to my noble friend the Leader of the House. It is: beware of what you wish for. It is by the natural order of things that one day, unless the abolition of the House of Lords Bill goes through in the form in which we understand it will be put to this House, he may be the Leader of the Opposition. He would then very much regret some of the proposals which are now being foisted upon us.
I agree with all that my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Crickhowell and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, have said. A lot of this mischief has arisen not just because of the passion for legislation of all Governments these days. Many years ago, as a Back-Bencher, I introduced a Private Member’s Bill—which, surprisingly, did not get anywhere—called the Limitation of Legislation Bill, which proposed that, from the date of enactment, there should be no increase in the total number of words on the statute book. That is, before you put new words on you would have to find a few to take off as well. I think that we would have been better governed had that Bill been enacted.
However, that has all been worsened by another of the dreadful fads at the other end of this corridor, called “family-friendly hours”. Because we no longer have Committees going on down there into the small hours of the morning, we get more legislation timetabled in some fashion or another, which means that far more of it comes here having been inadequately discussed or not discussed at all. So their family-friendly hours become our distinctly unfriendly hours. They then lead to a very unfriendly proposal of the kind we are facing today.
The points have been well made. I do not think it is necessary for me to take up your Lordships’ time by repeating them. However, since the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—although it has not yet been moved—I wonder if I might do so too? There may not have been abuse—as some would call it—of the Written Question, but it has at times been pushed a bit far in its volume if not its quality. However, I must say to my noble friend the Leader of the House that I recently tabled a Written Question asking whether, when he had said that it was the Government’s policy that the number of seats in this House should be allocated to parties predominantly—in fact, he did not even say predominantly—by reference to the number of votes cast in the most recent general election, he meant that the Government were going to bring forward proposals for the introduction into this House of an appropriate number of Members of the British National Party, UKIP, the Greens and other minority parties. I received a reply from him which told me that the nomination of Members for this House was blah, blah, blah. It did not answer the Question. So I put down exactly the same Question again. There were two Questions from me. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, put down a similar Question and she, like me, got exactly the same non-answer again. I scored an unnecessary Question because I did not get an answer. I regret to say that that is happening increasingly frequently these days, so one devises the same Question again or the same Question is even accepted again literally word for word by the Table Office.
I cannot guarantee to my noble friend that I might not go along to the Table Office and put the Question down for the third time to make my point. If we want to get fewer Written Questions, we might try much harder to get replies which relate to the Question, not to what the Minister might wish that the Question had been.
My Lords, I have never felt so lonely for such a long time. I voted for this report in committee and I will vote for it again today. The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, has also indicated how incompetent I am that I cannot get a letter to all Members of the Cross-Bench group. We all—well, a large proportion of the House—supported the Leader’s Group, but when it comes to implementing its recommendations the debate demonstrates how difficult it is to get agreement across your Lordships' House. It may be that I am too innocent to be allowed out, but I have tried to address the issue before the House and not be dragged into other, wider issues. Perhaps that is a failure on my part.
Having considered the report of the Leader’s Group on these matters in recommendations 9, 20 and 22, it seemed to me that the committee had addressed the issues with great care and concern. I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on one point: this House needs to preserve as much flexibility as possible for a self-regulating House. I regret to say that I cannot support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, because it states that all Bills should go to Grand Committee except in exceptional situations or when they are very controversial. If we think about this Session, there is not one Bill that could have been described as anything other than controversial. The amendment of the noble Baroness is altogether too restrictive for a self-regulatory House.
It is very important that this House takes forward the need to change in a way that enables us to manage the business as effectively as possible. I have formed a high regard for the usual channels and the way in which they try to deal with the business of this House. I believe that the usual channels can be relied on to reach sensible decisions which will command the confidence of the House. The recommendations are for a trial period. We have the opportunity to rehearse them in due course and we can learn from experience.
On Written Answers, the point was made about the expense that has been accrued by some noble Lords. Of course we want noble Lords to fulfil their responsibilities within the House, but that has to be balanced against the proper use of public finance, particularly at this time. I commend the recommendations relating to both Committees and Written Answers.
My Lords, if we start sending more things to Committees off the Floor of the House, we will soon discover that variant of Parkinson’s Law: talk expands to fill the time provided.
I would far prefer us to go back to what we used to do not that many years ago, which was to vote in Committee on the principle of amendments—even if they were defective, we looked at the principle. At Report, we tidied them up, which took much less time. That is why debates on Report are much more focused and we are not allowed to do the to and froing. Third Reading was purely confined to sorting out the typos, the essential little mistakes, not dealing with anything of principle. If we started to go back to that system, with voting in Committee, we would have far more abbreviated proceedings later on. All we are doing is talking it through in Committee and again at Report.
We have to use that as a brake on the deluge of legislation that is coming on us these days. If we give more time for talking, we will just get more to talk about.
My Lords, I shall talk just briefly about my amendment on Written Answers during times when the House is not sitting. We have talked about Written Answers long and hard already today. Unfortunately, holding the Government to account does not stop when the House is not sitting. I am not an abuser of the system, and I am sorry that some people are, but I think that it would be a very good idea to be able to table more Questions during the recesses, and to be able to get Answers back rather more frequently than we do at the moment, which I think is once every five weeks in the Summer Recess. I am therefore very grateful to the Chairman of Committees for offering to take it back to the committee, and I hope that we can take it forward on that basis.
My Lords, while we are all on this matter, which we very rarely are, may I take the opportunity to point out another reason why we are actually where we are? It is not simply the volume of legislation, or the number of pages going on the statute book. In fact, it is the number of Peers speaking, the length of time that they speak and the number of times that they repeat themselves on the same issue. There are notable offenders, and it is for members of their parties or groups to bring them to task. However, if we were all aware of the fact that once a point has been well made and accepted, there is no need to make it again, and that when 12 people want to make it, it is really only necessary to hear from two of them at the most, we would then save a very great deal of time.
Being a hereditary Peer, perhaps I might just cast noble Lords’ minds back to the time when there were over 1,100 Members of this House—far more than there are now. Far fewer of them attended than attend now, and the only people who came to speak were people who knew a great deal about their subjects and knew that they would be listened to. The result was that the speakers’ lists were about a third of the length that they are now, and that the speeches were about three times as good. If we could exercise a little self-restraint and not talk too often about things that have caught our fancy the previous week—or if, when we did so, we could keep it short and not do it too often—we would get a lot done much quicker than we do now.
My Lords, I appreciate the good advice from my noble friend Lord Elton, but there are two issues to which I wish to refer. The first is the difficulty I have with the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. There are some controversial, even exceptionally controversial, pieces of legislation which are very well dealt with in Grand Committee. The Welfare Reform Bill was a very clearly controversial—indeed, I think the noble Baroness will agree exceptionally controversial—piece of legislation, but it benefited from being dealt with in Grand Committee. There are therefore assumptions that are too wide-ranging.
Secondly, when it comes to the timing of Grand Committee, there is a case that Grand Committee might be able to go on until 10 o’clock on occasion, but it would be a mistake to make that a regular procedure because it would mean that we would be running two Chambers at the same time, and there are some difficulties with that. Therefore, I make a plea that we ensure that in what is remitted to Grand Committee, and on the timings of Grand Committee, there is a deal of flexibility perhaps on that basis of presumption, and certainly not on the basis of more rules.
My Lords, I had not intended to contribute to today’s debate, but three things make me want to contribute briefly. One was the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for whom I have the utmost affection and respect, and with whom I share a commitment to change, reform and improvement in the way in which we deal with legislation in this House. We deal with legislation very well, but we can deal with it better, and the report of the Leader’s Group gave us some very clear ways in which we can take that forward. However, the pick-and-mix approach of taking one highly controversial issue which can have all sorts of unintended consequences, at a time when you do not have to be paranoid to think that someone is after you in terms of the next Session of Parliament, puts back the cause of those of us who are reformers. Certainly, the five years I had the honour to occupy the Woolsack taught me that to move things forward in this House you have to do a great deal of groundwork and create a great deal of consensus—and that has not happened on this occasion.
The second contribution was from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. Although I believe that we have to take some action on Written Questions, like the noble Lord, I cannot understand how two Members of this House, from different perspectives, put down a Question about a government policy that was delineated in the coalition agreement as government policy and are told that we cannot have an answer to it because appointments to the House of Lords have, in the past, been a matter for the Prime Minister. I think that those were the words used. I do not understand how one cannot get a comment on government policy in that area.
My third reason for speaking is very different. It would be very sad if today we did not mark the absence of Lord Newton from the Chamber. Many years ago he was my pair in the House of Commons, and I served on the commission that he chaired looking into parliamentary scrutiny. Over the past weeks and months we have seen his quiet passion and his principle as a parliamentarian. He was also a distinguished Leader of another place. I miss him today and I expect the rest of the House does as well.
My Lords, I have an interest in the subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. It is not true that the Prime Minister responded to my Questions and those of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, with something irrelevant. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, “Blah, blah, blah”. The answer to me was that, whatever the Government committed themselves to in this matter, it would be the Prime Minister who decided—full stop. That is where we stood with Written Answers last week.
My Lords, I would never presume to call myself a politician. I suppose that, if anything, I am an observer of politics who occasionally commentates on it. In the 16 years that I was the lobby correspondent for the Economist, from 1975 to 1991, the House of Commons did not have a guillotine as routine, and again and again I saw its effect as an exceptional measure. It was something that the Government of the day considered very carefully. I saw the good effect that it had on the process of negotiation and the scrutiny of legislation, and the extent to which it resulted in better outcomes of that legislation. However, I was shocked when Mr Tony Blair’s Government introduced the guillotine as a regular feature and I was disappointed when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister perpetuated it. I found myself asking: if we were to have an elected Senate here, how long would it be before the guillotine was introduced here and then who would scrutinise the Executive?
My Lords, as a member of the Leader’s Group, I have noticed that not a great deal of this debate has been devoted to the consideration given by that group to the matters under discussion today. That of course is partly because times have moved on and there are matters hanging over the future of this House that may have altered some people’s perceptions. However, it ought to be recognised that the Leader’s Group gave quite close consideration to these issues. It took a great deal of evidence and concluded that Grand Committee procedure leads to better scrutiny of primary legislation. One reason given was that there was,
“greater informality of the Grand Committee and the better communications between ministers and officials, leading to better quality responses”.
Having said that, the Leader’s Group also took the view that certain matters arouse such considerable interest beyond those who might normally be anticipated to have an interest in the subject matter of the debate that they would be inappropriately held in Grand Committee. We have actually seen the limitations of the space available in an earlier debate at the end of the last calendar year when we were discussing the European Union eurozone crisis. The Room was full to bursting and there was not enough time or space for everyone who wanted to participate.
Consequently, I think that the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, has some merit in it because it recognises—and explicitly recognises by quotation—the words and the reasoning of the Leader’s Group. I also acknowledge, however, that deciding what constitutes an exceptionally controversial Bill—as was pointed out to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd—is difficult to determine. I do not feel confident that presumptions can be made on that point; and I do not believe that the usual channels will necessarily agree on it. It seems that these should be matters for the decision of the House when the Bill is first debated.
If one looks at the Companion, one finds that there is no proposal to change: there may be an addition to the Companion about the presumption, but there is still the need to get the approval of the House. It seems to me, therefore, that we are actually arguing about a very small difference.
That may be so. The recommendations of the Leader’s Group referred to the Companion in this context, indicating that it was preferable to have a rule rather than a presumption. I beg to submit that the House would do well to consider that original recommendation.
The formidable speech made by my noble friend Lord Cormack will have arrested many people’s prior commitments and considerations. However, if his amendment is not carried, there is a considerable case for recognising that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, is a better reflection of the Leader’s Group than the proposal that we should act on a presumption and agreement through the usual channels. I hope very much that that will be taken into account in reaching a decision.
My Lords, this might be a useful opportunity to say a few words, but I begin by joining the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in paying tribute to Lord Newton of Braintree. Anybody who had seen him—as we all had—over the past six months could not but admire his tremendous courage and extraordinary pluckiness in being here in all his physicality and playing a real part in Bills. I worked with him very closely when he was Leader of the House of Commons and I was Government Chief Whip here. He was a joy to work with—a pleasant man in all respects. We as a House and as a party will miss him; he was a great Conservative and a great parliamentarian.
Turning back to this debate, during the course of this afternoon my eye has been drawn to the screens. I could not help but see that in the Moses Room, there is a debate on the Lord’s Resistance Army and I wonder if some noble Lords have not wandered into the wrong debate.
We are currently considering a report from the Procedure Committee and it is no coincidence that we are considering alongside it a report from the Liaison Committee. Both reports have the same origin; namely, the work of the Leader’s Group on Working Practices. Both address the same welcome phenomenon, which is that more Members are participating more actively in our proceedings. In short, the proposals are intended to accommodate increased demand from Members who wish to take an active part in our proceedings, and to reduce the number of late sittings that have been taking place after 10 o’clock at night. Average daily attendance has risen considerably by comparison with the last Parliament, as has the average number of votes cast per Division, the number of Questions for Written Answer tabled each day, and the number of short debates being tabled. From that point of view, my noble friend Lord Elton has hit the nail on the head.
These trends have had an impact on our scrutiny of legislation. This Session has seen more Bills take longer than eight days to consider in Committee than did so over the whole of the last Parliament. That is a quite a significant statistic. More Members are speaking for longer on more amendments. At the same time, we have sent fewer Bills to Grand Committee than was the norm across the last two Parliaments and, indeed, since 2001. In combination, these trends have put pressure on time in the Chamber, in particular on our rising times.
One response, although I hasten to add that it is not one that I am suggesting now, would be to go down the route that the House of Commons has chosen: fixed rising times in combination with taking the bulk of Committee stages off the Floor of the House along with the timetabling and selection of amendments. That is what my noble friend Lord Cormack has warned us against, and I agree with every word he said. I could not possibly support what he fears or what I have just mentioned, and I do so for the same reasons as my noble friend and other noble Lords who have spoken.
The proposals from the Procedure Committee actually take a very different approach, one that maintains and protects the freedoms of Members of this House to table amendments and have them spoken to by a Minister without selection or guillotine, a freedom which I hope we will never lose. By introducing additional flexibility in the sitting hours of the Grand Committee on Bills and creating a presumption that we should look to commit Bills arriving from the Commons to Grand Committee, save when there are good reasons not to do so, the proposals would help us make better use of our time. They would provide the necessary extra opportunities for Members to take part, and in doing so would ease the pressure on time in this Chamber, thus making it easier for the House to rise on time. If the House rejects these proposals, it would mean that we might have to become used to sitting regularly beyond our target rising time.
The Procedure Committee has also taken the view that a presumption would be useful. I support that view. The question why was framed by my noble friend Lord Cormack in his speech. He fears that we are handing something over to the Executive. That is quite a hard thing to do in a House where the Executive has no majority, but let me try and explain.
My Lords, you do not have to be a mathematician to work out that the 37 per cent of the House which makes up the coalition is not a majority.
I support the view on presumption because the experience of this Session shows that there are Bills that we could and should be sending to Grand Committee but do not, and that this detracts from the time we have available to spend on those Bills that do merit consideration on the Floor of the House and on other kinds of business. Let me give some examples. If the Academies Bill had gone to Grand Committee, perhaps we need not have sat at 11 o’clock in the morning to take the Health and Social Care Bill. If the Postal Services Bill had gone to Grand Committee, perhaps we need not have finished the proceedings on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill at two o’clock in the morning.
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord the Leader of the House, but as all noble Lords will recall, the Academies Bill was the first Bill to be introduced in this House, and there was simply no other business. The Health and Social Care Bill came forward towards the end of the parliamentary Session, and therefore it is inconceivable that had the Academies Bill been taken in Grand Committee, it would have made an iota of difference to the Health and Social Care Bill.
My Lords, if it made no difference, presumably the noble Baroness would not have refused, as she did, to put it into Grand Committee in the first place.
We could make better use of this Chamber. Let me give another example. Last December, the Grand Committee had an urgent debate on the eurozone crisis attended by some 50 Members of the House. The Chamber was not available because the Protection of Freedoms Bill was in Committee of the whole House with about a dozen participants. Many noble Lords at the time raised the question whether we were using the time in the Chamber wisely. The presumption, which the Procedure Committee recommends—
My Lords, I am terribly sorry, but I have to set the record straight. The Protection of Freedoms Bill was an interesting Bill because it was the very first time that the House as a whole agreed that half of the Bill would be taken in Grand Committee and the most controversial aspects would be taken on the Floor of the House. Therefore, I think a very good agreement was brought to bear in that instance.
My Lords, I have no quarrel with the decision the noble Baroness made in that instance. The noble Baroness thinks I am getting at her—I will get at her in a moment, but I am not getting at her for that. I am simply pointing out that these were decisions—we took them using the usual channels and we took them together—to do things in a certain way. I am simply suggesting that in retrospect we might have done them rather differently and in a way that might have suited more Members of the House.
The presumption that the Procedure Committee recommends will also not open the floodgates to a Commons-style system, where the bulk of Committee stages are taken off the Floor of the House for two simple reasons; first, because the House will not let it. If this Report is agreed to, no Bill will go to Grand Committee without the express permission and agreement of this House. Therefore, the House will, quite rightly, retain control of which Bills go to Grand Committee, a point that my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury raised.
As for my noble friend’s second fear, we do not have the capacity for a Commons-style system. This was the fear that all Bills emanating from the House of Commons would end up in Grand Committee. We do not have the capacity to do that, even if we wished to. The Commons, as I understand it, can have several Public Bill Committees sitting at once off the Floor of the House. We have only one Grand Committee and it is required for many other kinds of business in addition to Bills, such as secondary legislation, short debates and Committee reports. Therefore, this House retains a built-in protection.
The Procedure Committee was not attracted to the fixed rule in favour of commitment to Grand Committee proposed by the Leader’s Group and enunciated again most eloquently by my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart. I believe that the Procedure Committee made the right decision. That was not the decision of the working practices group. The presumption that we have proposed instead is more prudent and more flexible.
I sense that part of the reason why the Leader of the Opposition is attached to the firm rule in her amendment is because it comes with seemingly defined exceptions: major constitutional Bills, emergency legislation and exceptionally controversial Bills. But, for once—I hope that there will be many occasions in the future—the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and I are in agreement. I can readily assure the House and the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition that I do not propose and will not propose that we consider major constitutional Bills or emergency Bills in Grand Committee.
The reason why I support the Procedure Committee’s proposals is that the exceptional controversial Bills criteria are neither clear nor necessarily useful. For example, only recently we took the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill in Grand Committee. By any measure, that was exceptionally controversial and it came to a vote on the Floor of the House. I believe that most Peers who took part in the Committee stage—albeit it was upstairs—found it extremely useful to have the expertise around the table and to be able to discuss the issues with the Minister.
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right in his description of the effectiveness of Grand Committee for the Welfare Reform Bill, but that was not the nature of it being exceptionally controversial. The difficulty was that we had a number of substantially disabled colleagues who wished to take part who were unhappy, with good reason, about the physical layout of the Committee Room. What my noble friends proposed was that the segments of the Bill that affected disability issues should be taken on the Floor of the House while the rest went up into Grand Committee. That would have been a solution, had the usual channels on both sides accepted it, which would have satisfied the entire House and improved scrutiny and attendance.
My Lords, I wrote to many of the participants and all those to whom I wrote without exception said how well they thought that it had gone. Allowances were made by the House authorities to make the Committee Room more acceptable to those Members in wheelchairs. The point about the presumption is that it would give us the flexibility to make that sort of judgment again in future.
If the report is agreed to, the House would remain the arbiter of which Bills and what proportion of the Bills were sent to Grand Committee. In my view, the House is the best judge of which Bill should be sent where, and that decision should be made case by case.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord and I thank him for the good humour with which he has handled the debate, in which he has found himself without a huge amount of support. However, could he perhaps skate a little less rapidly over the point that the proposal in the Procedure Committee actually enhances the power of the Government? The two parts of the sentence in question—the presumption, and the fact that if there is no agreement between the usual channels, the matter will be taken in Grand Committee—give the Government a complete lock, apart from the nuclear option of coming to the House at the end of Second Reading and asking for a vote. That is a substantial increase in the power of the Executive, because the Government can always instruct their Chief Whip to refuse to agree to the matter being taken in the House. I would be grateful if he could address a little bit more that enhancement of the power of the Executive, which I hope was not his intention—and, if it was not, either of the two amendments that have been moved would be preferable.
My Lords, I do not think that there is any intention to give the Executive more power, or that it is a by-product of what I am suggesting. What would give the Executive more power would have been to accept the original suggestion from the Goodlad committee that there should be a rule, with certain exceptions, that all Bills emanating from the House of Commons should go to Grand Committee. We very much see it as continuing on more or less a similar basis to the one we have, by gaining agreement in the usual channels. The difference is that, if a Bill were not to go to Grand Committee, there would obviously have to be a vote on the Floor of the House. With a really controversial Bill, I cannot imagine that the House would support that view if it did not wish to do so.
Am I right in thinking that under the proposals, when at the end of the Second Reading, the Lord Speaker or Deputy Speaker stands up and moves that the Bill goes to Grand Committee or the Floor of the House, any noble Lord could then speak, and a Division would be held if there was no agreement? That would take the power that the noble Lord thinks is being put into the hands of the Executive right out again.
Yes, my Lords, my noble friend has got it entirely right. There would still be a Motion before the House and any noble Lord could put an amendment down to it or divide on it.
I see the potential extra hour and a half as an addition of welcome flexibility to the scheduling of Grand Committee and not a requirement to sit to the maximum each day. That was the point that my noble friend Lord Alderdice made. I have already made that clear to the Leader of the Opposition in a dialogue off the Floor. It would sometimes suit the participants to complete a Committee stage in a smaller number of longer sittings than to have to find time in their diaries for a larger number of days. Therefore, my noble friend Lord Alderdice has nothing to worry about.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that people would get too tired, but we are already sitting until 10 o’clock on the Floor of the House, so there is no reason why they should not be able to do so in Grand Committee—and, as I pointed out, that would not necessarily happen all the time.
My Lords, again, I speak with reference to the Welfare Reform Bill, where the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who was the Whip, and the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, were admirable in their courtesy, openness and responsiveness to the Committee Members; it was impeccably handled.
The point is that Report is easy, because you have traversed the ground already in Committee. You have the evidence, you have had the meetings, you have had the seminars, you have had the briefings, you are making one speech perhaps to move or in support of your amendment—possibly a minor one to wind up—and that is it. It is easy. The difficult, demanding, tiring and heavily detailed work is done in Committee, particularly on a Bill such as the Welfare Reform Bill, where you are continuously interrogating the Minister in order to get the detailed information so that you can come back to it in subsequent, reiterative amendments. It is hugely demanding, and going on as late as 7.30 pm has meant that some of our older Members and more disabled Members have been severely tired. I have very great concerns about lengthening sitting hours on the grounds that Committee stage is as easy and straightforward as Report; it is not.
My Lords, all we are doing here is extending the envelope by which the Grand Committee can sit. It will not necessarily have to sit as long as that every single day. What is more, a presumption towards committing Commons Bills to Grand Committee cannot release any capacity that does not exist already. We already have the capacity to have a Grand Committee sitting on legislation four days a week, and the Companion already enables any government Bill to be committed to Grand Committee, as recommended by the first working group on this subject by Lord Rippon of Hexham as far back as 1994, and even he gave no exceptions.
Meanwhile, the proposed extension in the sitting hours of Grand Committees would affect how the time spent on each Committee stage is divided up across sittings and among Bills. It would not reduce the number of hours spent on each Committee stage and so make room for more legislation.
Last of all, I turn to what my noble friend Lord Cormack called the elephant in the room over the last three days. I have been struck by—indeed, I have been astonished at—the number of Members who have spoken to me in the corridor or have sent me a text message to say that they think that this process is all part of a sneaky government ploy to push through a Lords reform Bill without anybody noticing, and to minimise collateral damage to the rest of the programme —to do it by stealth, said the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. Well, I have been waiting a long time to find a good wheeze to get such a Bill through the House of Lords without anybody noticing. I assure noble Lords, this is not it. This is not a great ploy or a great scheme; if it were, obviously we have been horribly found out.
If the House agrees this report, next Session the House will decide, case by case, which Bills are considered in Committee here on the Floor and in the Moses Room. The House itself will decide at what pace it progresses and which amendments are made to which Bills. I have every confidence that, if a Lords reform Bill makes it into the Queen’s Speech, the House will take every decision it wishes next Session.
Let me just finish my point. This report will have no impact on the passage of such a Bill if it came forward. I would give way to my noble friend, but I have obviously pre-empted her question. I hope I gave her the confirmation that she required.
The proposals in this report were born out of the working practices group and the Procedure Committee. They are designed to resolve the problem of there simply not being enough time to accommodate all of those who wish to speak to their amendments to Bills. Either more goes to Grand Committee or we sit beyond 10 pm.
I hope that I have said enough to explain the proposals from my perspective. They build on the work of the working practices group. They seek to accommodate a more active membership by making better use of the Grand Committee and better use of this Chamber. I hope that the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, will not find favour with the House. I understand why she has put it down, but equally I do not think that it will be effective or workable. I urge my noble friend Lord Cormack not to move his amendment for the simple reason that the Procedure Committee has already given the proposals careful and prolonged consideration. The committee has made the recommendations that are before the House today, and it is time for the House to make a decision on them. I commend the report to the House.
My Lords, I shall be extremely brief because, fortunately, none of the points made in the debate on the report require an answer from me. As I said in the first place, the committee was not unanimous on this subject and therefore my position is completely neutral. On the question of Questions for Written Answer, there was not a voice against the proposal in the Procedure Committee’s report.
I must apologise to the House, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I was misinformed that he was going to move the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves: he is not going to do so. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for agreeing that we could take his matter back to the committee. I now leave it to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, to decide what to do with her amendment, and after that we shall move on to those of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to this excellent short debate. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made a cogent case and has been strongly supported by noble Lords from all sides of the House. He is right that we must not put ourselves in danger of becoming a regulated House with timetabling. I also note that the noble Lord the Leader said that he hoped we would never lose our freedom not to be timetabled, and I am sure that all noble Lords will wish to keep him to that hope.
Parliament must be able to hold the Executive to account, and time must always be allowed for proper scrutiny of legislation. To do otherwise is to shift the balance of power in favour of the Executive. I note that the noble Lord said that, before a Bill is committed to Grand Committee, there might well be a vote in this Chamber to decide whether it should be so committed or debated here on the Floor of the House. I simply point out that the noble Lord and his Benches have a political majority in this House, and I imagine that on such an occasion there would be a whipped vote. I believe therefore that this would hand power to the Executive.
Presumption is clearly dangerous, as we have all agreed in the debate. I understand the concern expressed around the Chamber about the prescription of the Goodlad committee’s proposals—and, indeed, of my own amendment—and the difficulty of defining “controversial”. Defining “constitutional” is a lot more straightforward.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, made an important contribution—I wish her a happy birthday—and I concur with her comments and those of the noble Lord the Leader about our joint admiration for the bravery and principles of Lord Newton of Braintree, who I believe we are all proud to call our noble friend.
I also agree with the noble Baroness that to deal in isolation with the issue of the hours that the Grand Committee should sit and the Bills that should be referred to it sets back both the process and the progress of reform. On the basis that I believe the House will vote in favour of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I am happy to withdraw my own amendment. I hope that his amendment will be passed and that when the matter is referred back to the Procedure Committee—of which I am proud to be a member—it will listen to representations from around the House, so that when a proposal is brought forward in future it truly will be reflective of the views of the House as a whole. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I do not wish to take up any more of the House’s time, save to say that I suspect I know which Lobby my late noble friend Lord Newton would be in. He is so much missed, as has been said. Nothing that we do this afternoon takes away any power or influence from the Leader of the House. Every Government are entitled to get their business but not in the process, in any way, directly or indirectly, to trammel the unfettered, self-regulating House of Lords, of which we are all so proud. I hope that noble Lords in all parts of the House will feel able to send a message to the committee, asking it to reflect on this debate and look at this issue again. In the mean time, we take nothing from the Leader but are careful to keep what we have. I beg to test the opinion of the House.
Remaining amendments to the Motion not moved.
Motion, as amended, agreed.